Movistar veteran Pablo Lastras took a well-judged solo win and with it the red jersey of race leader at the stage three finish in Totana. The 35-year-old Spaniard, who has won stages in all three Grand Tours during a career that goes back to 1998, finished 15 seconds clear of Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Mikel Irizar (RadioShack) and Ruslan Pydgornyy (Vacansoleil-DCM) after attacking them on the final climb of the day, 12km from the finish.
The Spaniard made his winning attack 500 metres from the top of the Alto de la Santa. His advantage was just a handful of seconds heading over the summit, but he gave it everything on the descent into Totana and pushed out his lead out to almost 30 seconds.
The chasing trio did start to cooperate and eat into Lastras’s advantage, reducing his lead to 10 seconds with 3km remaining. But, having done most of the chasing, Chavanel then eased up and the three riders started toying with each other, leaving Lastras to enjoy a celebratory final kilometre as he claimed his first Vuelta stage win since 2002.
Lastras dedicated the victory to his former teammate Xavier Tondo and Leopard Trek’s Wouter Weylandt, who both died earlier this season, as well as to Movistar’s Mauricio Soler, who is still recovering from serious injuries sustained at the Tour of Switzerland in June.
"I think that I won today because of the expertise that I've built up as a veteran rider, I think it was a good win. I really wanted to raise my arms at the finish today and I dedicate the win to Xavi Tondo and to my teammate Soler who is very ill, as well as to all the friends who have been lost this year," said Lastras, who also went on to thank the media "for making this sport great" and his team manager Eusebio Unzué "who gave me the confidence I needed".
Chavanel, who would have taken the race lead if he had finished ahead of Lastras, was pleased with his performance. "We collaborated really well until the last climb. At 600 metres from the top of Alto de la Santa, Lastras took off. I couldn't follow him because I was starting to get cramps," said the Frenchman.
"On the slight rise towards the finish I gave it everything I had to catch up to Lastras. However there wasn't much collaboration from Pydgornyy and Irizar. When we got to within nine seconds from Lastras with only 3 kilometres to go to the finish line we started sizing each other up and Lastras gained a few seconds' advantage. It wasn't up to me to do all the work to catch up.
"I wanted to win the stage and often in order to win you have to risk losing. I gave it everything I had, I couldn't have done more. Anyway, I'm happy with my form, I feel good and I'm going to try again. Congratulations to Pablo. He was the strongest today and he's a great rider."
Most of the race favourites finished safely in the bunch that was led in by Nicolas Roche 1:43 after Lastras had taken the stage. However, two-time winner Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) failed to stay with the bunch’s pace on the final climb, coming in 3:06 down along with Rabobank’s Steven Kruijswijk, who had been marked as another rider to watch after his impressive performance at the Giro d’Italia.
The winning break takes shape
After a number of escape attempts had been thwarted in the opening five kilometres, Pydgornyy, Chavanel and Cofidis’s Nicolas Edet jumped away after 6km and were soon joined by Spaniards Lastras and Irizar. These five quickly got a good lead, which stretched to almost eight minutes with 68km covered as Liquigas-Cannondale and Leopard Trek set a steady pace on the front of bunch.
Edet asked for medical assistance having being stung on the forehead by an insect with 90km covered. Soon after the young Frenchman started to slip back from the break. Vacansoleil-DCM’s Pydgornyy claimed the sprint not long after this. The pace did increase in the bunch from this point on, although none of the teams were keen to take on too much work so early in the race and in such sapping conditions.
As Irizar led the four escapees over the 3rd-category Alto del Berro with 117km covered, back in the bunch a lot of riders were starting to struggle. HTC’s Mark Cavendish fell back, together with fellow sprinter Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano). Leopard Trek was doing most of the work, cutting the break’s lead back to 4:28 at the summit of the Berro, then trimming it down to 3:46 as the race passed through Totana for the first time with 22km remaining.
Sky prominent on final climb
The final 22km loop took the riders out of Totana and up and over the Alto de la Santa, a regular feature in the Tour of Murcia, before dropping back into the finish again. The four breakaway riders were content to cooperate all the way up the climb, until Lastras made his winning move towards the summit.
Back in the rapidly thinning bunch, Team Sky was clearly determined to keep team leader Bradley Wiggins out of trouble. Thomas Lövkvist set the pace for a good way up the climb, with Wiggins on his wheel.
However, suggestions that some of the leading contenders might attempt an attack on the climb with the aim of gaining a few seconds in Totana were unfounded. Geox-TMC’s David De La Fuente did make a dig that came to nothing. But the GC contenders were clearly happy to save themselves until the much bigger test that faces them on stage four, which brings the first summit finish at Sierra Nevada.
That stage will offer an early insight into the likely contenders for the Vuelta title and should bring an immediate end to Lastras’s hold on the red jersey.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.